Freitag, 1. Februar 2008


Memory is a tricky thing and that is all the more true for national memories, the constructed recollections of collectivities somehow to share a common fate, in which the depersonalized memories of defining moments—or rather those we have come to think of in that way—are collated into narratives of linear development, new beginnings, moments that shook the world or turned it upside down. “Where were you when you found out the second plane hit the World Trade Centre?”

The memorialisation of recent history in the countries we are passing through has been a persistent theme, watching the building of post-communist nations through contesting what communism meant. All this is discussed from my point of view, which should not be confused with any claim of “no point of view” objectivity. I hope the following won’t be monumentally boring. If it is, watch this space for a fast-paced article about a wild night of gonzo journalism covering the final rallies in the lead-up to the Serbian presidential elections.

The ramble of national narratives and sites of memorialisation began in Berlin at the recently opened Deutsches historisches Museum. The German national narrative showcased there is very much a product of 50 odd years of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, strongly infused by western debates, intent on drawing a rich and varied image of the “national past,” with heroes whose shadowy sides are drawn out (Bismarck) and avoiding the temptation of mythologizing and externalising the Nazi past. Yet when it comes to Communism, it is a memory fixated on West Germany victorious against the East, of a united narrative divided where West Germany is the truer Germany.

In Prague there is no museum of national history, but Prague does boast a museum of Communism, a sad, misnamed private affair about the inter- and post-war history of the Czech Republic, devoid of any exhibits of note and illustrating a narrative cooked up by amateur historians attempting a desperate undergraduate all-nighter with scarcely Wikipedia for support. Keen to remember Marx as a “failed poet,” Lenin for being a German agent, and the 1948 communist victory to have been a result only of agitation and intimidation, it made up for its tendentious tone through its poor translations. In perhaps the only Central European country that had a strong domestic communist movement, the Museum is eager to remember Communism as a Soviet import, alien to Czech sensibilities.

The same externalisation is evident in Hungary, where the controversial terrorhaza is a celebration of victimisation. Commissioned by the centre-right government under Orbán and opened in December 2002, it is a memorial to Catholic memory triumphant. Sadly, the sculpture of Cardinal Mindszenty, martyred on the Cross of the Twentieth Century (a Swastika superimposed on a hammer and sickle), which most radically sums up the fundamental thesis of the Museum, is not yet on display there, to be found instead in the Budapest Basilica near St. Istvan’s shrivelled right hand. From the outset, the terrorhaza is eager to remember the Nazis as interchangeable with the domestic Arrow Cross movement and essentially identical to Soviet Communism. Both Fascism and Communism are portrayed as foreign imports and invasions, Hungary caught helpless between German and Soviet aggression. For a country with its own revisionist axes to grind after the Treaty Of Trianon and where the Arrow Cross movement was the second largest party in the 1939 elections, this is a daring line of argumentation. Thankfully, the national museum has a far subtler story to tell, yet it too has striking silences. The denial of any positive interaction and development under Ottoman rule (conveniently summed up as “150 years of destruction”), the stress placed on Hungary being pulled against its will into two world wars and the denial of any Hungarian agency under communism (aside from Imre Nagy, we hear very little about Hungarian communists) all seem oddly simplistic.


Prague seems to be turning into/back into? Vienna writ Czech. A city centre full of cafes harking back to a coffee house tradition now more concerned with the height of the whipped cream than any sort of bohemian dynamism. This does not detract from Prague’s undoubted beauty, vistas of alleyways and illuminated arches, balustrades, columns, breathtaking vistas from the Petrin, the Castle. Yet the city thus looked down upon seems at times strangely lifeless, bustling, but with nowhere to go, just tourists turning the same circles gazing wide-eyed and fresh-faced at a city that itself has become too fresh, too new; brightly painted facades replacing the layered whitewashes and crumbling stucco that made Prague, like Rome, a site of monumental, glorious decay and faded glory. I, for one, prefer my Empires a posteriori—or medium-rare.

These musings apply only to the city centre, searching for cafes and Zion in Zizkov and bits of the Kleinseite are quite a different affair: bohemian, at times gritty, small cafes and real people. Of course it is people like us, looking for the “real,” that lead every last corner of the city to be overrun by lonely-planet clutching backpackers, eager for “authentic” experience.

If Prague is turning into staid Vienna, then Budapest is moving out of the shadows of both. Too big and too alive to be run-over by tourists, it is a bustling, crumbling, grand, cool, ode to joy, where it is possible to wander for hours doing little more than wondering at Gruenderzeit and art nouveau facades, the monstrous, neo-gothic Parliament, the imposing, if slightly jumbled Basilica, the Opera, the castle, the churches, striking statues. Cafes in ruins, minimalist interiors in clubs like underground caverns, dramatic statues, the glorious, steaming baths...

the 4pm photo

Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, every day. Almost.

Sunday, Dresden

Monday, Prague

Tuesday, Prague

Wednesday, Budapest

more 4pm-ish photos

Saturday, Budapest, Maisha's apartment

Sunday, Budapest, Margaret Island

Monday, Budapest, National Gallery

Wednesday, Belgrade, Castle

Thursday, Belgrade, Tadic Rally

Friday, Sofia, Rila Monastery

Thursday, January 24, 2008

the old Euro City trains' compartments contain what can only be described as two long red high-backed benches, each scarcely twenty centimetres wide. They can be slept on, but not very well. My slightest movement or even the train accelerating invariably resulted in my sleeping-bag clad body rolling off the "seat" and onto the floor, where it landed with a painful thud. If falling to the floor punctuated my dozing in the eerie half light of the compartment and contributed to a growing certainty that the world was a horrible place, this insight was confirmed at 5:03 when the conductor entered the compartment, his face threateningly lit from below by the glow of his ticketing device. An unpleasantly high-pitched, whiny voice issued from the thin lips an unkind creator had streaked across his doughy face. The stream of Slovak, German and English words issuing from his mouth seemed to imply that we had done something horribly wrong. Our ticket wasn't valid. We had stumbled unwittingly onto the wrong train. We were lucky he didn't kill us on the spot, but we would have to transfer at 5:40 in Bratislava to the 8:43 train to Budapest. The small man grew increasingly agitated as he spoke and in his eyes glowed profound empathy with our unfortunate situation. When after a moment of silence he began speaking again, the sweet honey of temptation dripped from every word. If we paid him for an additional reservation to cover our Bratislava to Budapest journey in the train we were already on, this problem could easily be resolved. After angrily dismissing our suggestion that we pay him with the two beers we had bought in Prague, the conductor insisted we get off the train in Bratislava. Sleep deprived, ill tempered, we began packing and disembarked red-eyed, dry-skinned and cursing. In a moment of genius Jack set off on wild dash down the Bratislava station to a different part of the train where a kinder conductor welcomed us heartily. And so we arrived in Budapest.